Every single pro athlete dreams of achieving greatness somehow. For many, it’s through a long career, numerous records and championships, a true team player who can achieve greatness as part of a unit. However, Halls of Fame are filled with guys with amazing careers yet, to most fans, their names mostly forgettable and not standing out as much as true superstars do. Do most Red Sox fans know every member of their 2004 World Championship team? Maybe not but they all remember Bill Buckner for that terrible error. It’s a shame but how it often is.
Then there are those athletes who are famous for just one moment. One moment in a single game or match that pushed them to massive prominence, far more than many of those long-term successful careers. It’s not always a moment, it can be a great season amid rough stuff and a so-so overall career. In some cases, it’s a moment of glory that elevated them to being a hero for the fans. Other times, it’s pretty much all they have, one single flash of greatness before vanishing into the background. Some come early on and they can never live up to that potential while other times it’s the tail end of an otherwise so-so career. Here are twenty athletes famous (or infamous) for one play or game, in some cases ones they’ll cherish forever no matter how fleeting that fame could be.
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20 Tom Cheney
It’s interesting how so many records in sports are held by players whose overall career aren’t very notable. Such a case is Tom Cheney. Playing just eight seasons for a couple of teams, Cheney had an overall record of 19-29 and an ERA of 3.77, not exactly Hall of Fame numbers. However, on September 12, 1962, while playing for the Washington Senators, Cheney pitched the game of a lifetime, lasting 16 innings against the Baltimore Orioles and striking out 21 players, a record that still stands today.
He did well the next year but his career went downhill with several losses and he would blame that record game for wearing his arm out too much.
19 Carlos Newton
One of the pioneers of MMA, Newton helped popularize the triangle choke and push MMA as a legitimate sport. He competed in various places like Pride FC but his biggest moment came in 2001 when he won the UFC welterweight championship from Pat Miletich. It was a huge moment that seemed to push Newton as a major star, but in his very first defense against Matt Hughes at UFC 34, he was knocked unconscious in a big slam against the cage and the ref stopped the fight to award Hughes the belt.
Injuries would hamper Newton over the next few years to curtail his comeback and his victories afterward weren’t as plentiful, finally retiring with just that one shot at the top and how being a pioneer doesn’t always make you a major success.
18 Bob Beamon
The term “Beamonesque” began to appear in the 1970s, meant to describe a feat that seemed incredible and nearly impossible to duplicate. It’s notable the term originates with a man whose overall track and field career wasn’t that spectacular. A good star in college, Beamon still wasn’t that notable as he prepared for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Preparing for the long jump, Beamon took off and landed it at 29 feet and two and a half inches, breaking the set world record by nearly two feet. It easily won him the gold medal and attention internationally.
Beamon never again jumped past 26 feet in his career with no other major championships to his credit. His record stood until 1991 when Mike Powell broke it with Beamon saying he always expected it to be shattered. He was one of the few as his amazing feat is still one of the more remarkable in Olympic history.
17 Tracy Porter
A track-and-field star in high school, Porter moved onto football where he set himself apart at Indiana with a record number of interceptions. Drafted by the New Orleans Saints, he only played five games before injuring his wrist. He did better in 2009 as his interceptions helped the Saints win the NFC Championship for a Super Bowl run.
In the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV, Porter caught a Peyton Manning pass and ran it back 74 yards for a touchdown, putting the Saints up 31-17 and sealing their eventual victory. He was a hero in New Orleans but injuries would temper his drive as he would move to the Broncos, Raiders, Redskins and currently the Bears while not having as much success as with the Saints. Still, Porter jokes that he never has to buy his own drink in New Orleans so at least that one great moment put him on the map.
16 Denny McLain
Few careers in history have seen such a spectacular rise and fall as McLain. In 1968, his fifth year in the majors, he won 31 games, a record that still stands, earning himself the Cy Young and MVP awards and led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series championship. He seemed ready for a long and great career with his amazing fastball but his personal life soon caused him to collapse. His arrogance rubbed fans the wrong way, he earned multiple suspensions for gambling and packing a gun and his game fell apart majorly.
He went from the most games won to the most lost in just two years and at only the age of 29, he was out of baseball before landing in jail. It’s truly remarkable and sad how such a promising career could come apart so fast and that fall has denied McLain an otherwise deserving spot in the Hall of Fame.
15 Rulon Gardner
Raised on a farm in Wyoming, Gardner was a beefy kid who had learning disabilities but got into wrestling as an outlet. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Gardner was an afterthought in the Greco-Roman wrestling category but soon found himself facing off against Aleksander “The Great” Karelin, a three-time Gold medalist considered the best wrestler on the planet. To the shock of the world, Gardner managed to pin Karelin and deal the Russian legend his first loss in 13 years.
While he celebrated with the gold and carried the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies, Gardner failed to achieve such success again, only gaining a bronze in 2004 and injuries in a snowmobile accident cutting his career far short. Still, the man works as a motivational speaker today to remind young athletes you can always achieve the impossible and never give up.
14 Bucky Dent
If you’ve lived in Boston over the last 30 years, you’d know him better as “Bucky F---ING Dent.” Having blown a 15 game lead in the AL East race, the Red Sox found themselves in a one-game playoff against the New York Yankees, the team prepared for the big guns like Reggie Jackson and Thurman Mason. What the Red Sox never expected was that the fatal blow would be made by a guy who had been a so-so batter for his entire career.
Up 2-0, the Red Sox seemed primed for a win when Dent smashed a three-run homer to the Green Monster to shift the tide. New York won the game and the division to cap the Red Sox pain. Dent would add to that by hitting .417 in the Yankees six game World Series victory over the Dodgers, earning himself MVP honors. Dent’s career afterward would show that hitting to be a freak incident, his lifetime average only .247 and that homer one of just 40 in his career. Still, the man is revered in New York and loathed in Boston for that single hit that exemplifies the “Curse” so well.
13 Tom Dempsey
That Dempsey got to the NFL at all is astounding given he was born without toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand. He persevered, using a special boot to become a placekicker and doing well at that job. On November 8, 1970, his New Orleans Saints were down against the Detroit Lions with no time left as Dempsey came to kick an impossible field goal. Hauling back, Dempsey booted the ball, a 63-yarder right through the goalposts with a few feet to spare, a NFL record.
He never quite achieved that feat again as he was traded to numerous teams and even criticisms his special boot gave him an unfair advantage but his record would stand until 2013 to make it one of the most notable in NFL history.
12 Tim Tebow
Today, his name comes up with the idea of him being someone who managed to con football fans into thinking he was the next Montana or Elway. However, it should be remembered Tebow really was skilled, the first college sophomore to win the Heisman and helping the Florida Gators to a National Championship. Signed to the Denver Broncos, he showed some stuff in the late part of 2010 but it was 2011 he blossomed as the team was 1-4 when Kyle Orton went out to injury and Tebow took over.
Tebow was soon pulling off some major come-from-behind victories with late 4th quarter dramatics to push the Broncos to a 8-8 finish and the playoffs. They were taken out by the Patriots but Tebow still impressed and became a mainstream star to seem ready to lead the Broncos to greater heights. However once Peyton Manning became available, Denver quickly turned to the future Hall of Famer and Tebow was traded to the Jets. His career has dwindled ever since and he hasn't played a regular season game since 2012.
11 Leon Spinks
His overall record is 26 wins and 17 losses but it’s one win that defined his career. On February 15th, 1978, Spinks faced off against Muhammad Ali, aged but still a dominant heavyweight champion. Ali has admitted to taking the fight too easily as Spinks came out hard and, in a massive upset, beat Ali in a 15-round split decision to win the title.
Spinks was soon pushed as the next big fighter but the WBC stripped him of the title when he refused to defend against Ken Norton. Instead, he faced Ali in a rematch with a much sharper Ali winning to regain the championship. Spinks’ career went into a tailspin, losing a title match to Larry Holmes in three rounds and in 1994, lost to a fighter who hadn’t had a bout in 17 years. He retired with his savings mostly lost and currently works as a janitor in Nebraska. He still has that famous gap-toothed grin but the much bigger gap is the career that could have been for a man who managed to top Ali at least once.
10 Johnny Vander Meer
There is one record in baseball that most say with confidence will never be broken and probably never matched: Throwing back-to-back no-hitters. That prize belongs to Vander Meer, who on July 11, 1938, as part of the Cincinnati Reds, tossed a no-hitter against the Boston Braves. Four days later, in the very first night game at Ebbets Field, Vander Meer threw another no-hitter to beat the Dodgers. It was a sensational feat, one that no one has come close to matching and more remarkable given how it belonged to a man whose lifetime record had more losses than wins.
He was part of the World Series champion Reds of 1940 but his lack of control and injuries led to Vander Meer being inconsistent and soon bouncing around various teams. Yet he still holds this remarkable record, one of the few “never topped” in sports and that alone earns him accolades from pitchers today.
9 David Tyree
It’s the play that Patriots fans still grouse over. It was all set, the capper to the perfect season, the Patriots to steamroll over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII and become the first team to finish 19-0. But the Giants played harder than anyone expected, pushing the Patriots to the limit and soon holding them tight as time clicked down. With 1:15 left and New England up 14-10, it looked like it was over as the Patriots closed in on Eli Manning, who managed to avoid a seemingly sure-fire sack to toss the ball high.
Downfield was Tyree, a man who had caught only 19 passes that year, including a touchdown earlier in the game. Leaping up, Tyree caught the ball against his helmet and held it tight as he came down. It was the key play that set up the Giants’ go-ahead touchdown and their stunning upset victory. Tyree was naturally a hero in New York but had to miss the next season due to injury. He signed with the Ravens for one season with no receptions before retiring. Thus, this was the one moment of Tyree’s career worth discussing although it’s still one of the best in NFL history.
8 Frank McCool
After time in the minor leagues and then to serve in the Army, McCool signed as a free agent for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1944. He soon became one of the best single-season goaltenders in the team’s history, leading the Maple Leafs to a 50-point season, with McCool himself getting a 3.22 goals against average that improved to 2.23 in the playoffs.
He holds the record for the most postseason shutouts in Maple Leaf history as his goaltending helped them win the Stanley Cup in 1945. However, he had a conflict with the management of the team over a new contract and by the time it was settled, he played only 22 games before a bad case of ulcers sidelined him for the rest of the year. He then decided to retire after just a year and a half, leaving this as one of the more notable single-season runs in NHL history.
7 Don Larsen
His win loss record is 81-91 with a 3.78 ERA, not exactly the stellar numbers of a New York Yankees icon. Yet Larsen still holds the honor of being the only man in history to throw a perfect game in the World Series. In 1956, the Yankees faced their old rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers with the Series tied at two games apiece. Taking the mound on October 8th, Larsen put on a pitching clinic, needing only 97 pitches total and Pee Wee Reese the only Dodger to get more than two balls counted against him and Jackie Robinson the only guy to get close to a hit.
After striking out Dale Mitchell for the final out, Larsen celebrated with the famous shot of catcher Yogi Berra leaping into his arms. He was feted as a hero as New York would win the championship and Larsen named MVP. His star soon faded as he never achieved that same pitching skill, winning another Series with the Yankees but not as prominent and would spend his career bouncing among various teams. Still, to this day, Larsen is counted on to get a cheer from Yankees fans for one afternoon of sheer perfection.
6 Jeremy Lin
Ah, “Linsanity.” For a few weeks in 2012, the 6-foot-3 player was being talked of as the next mega-star in the NBA. After a so-so start with the Golden State Warriors, Lin was signed by the New York Knicks and in early 2012, erupted with fantastic play, several triple-double games, 38 points against the Lakers and a three-pointer with no time left to give the Knicks a win over the Raptors.
The media was all over him praising his talent and merchandising going crazy promoting him majorly. And as soon as he took off, Lin’s star began to fade, injuries making the Knicks wary over re-signing him so he went to the Houston Rockets where his offense was nowhere near as effective. He was soon moved to the Lakers and currently on the Hornets where the once-seemingly excellent career has turned into just another player, showing some bouts of “insanity” can be fleeting.
5 Bill Mazeroski
To his peers, Mazeroski was one of the best second basemen of his time, an 8-time Golden Gloves winner. Many an opposing player complained that a shot that should have been an easy base hit against anyone else turned into an out thanks to Mazeroski’s quick speed and amazing throw. It’s thus highly ironic that the man is revered as a Pittsburgh Pirates icon (complete with statue outside PNC Park) not for any of his years with a glove but one single moment with a bat.
Despite being outscored 55-27 in the 1960 World Series, the Pirates were able to take the Yankees to a decisive Game 7 in Pittsburgh. It’s regarded as one of the best in World Series history, a back and forth affair with both teams tied 9-9 going into the bottom of the ninth. Leading off the inning, Mazeroski took the first pitch and smashed it over the fence of Forbes Field to win the World Series for the Pirates. The crowd went wild as the statue shows Mazeroski in his joyful home run trot to seal the deal. An average hitter for the rest of his career, Mazeroski never attained that height again but did give the greatest moment for Pirates fans to remain a legend for them.
4 Doug Flutie
There’s many a case of a college star who didn’t do as well in the pros and Doug Flutie has to rank high on that list. A star for Boston College, Flutie led his squad against the Miami Hurricanes on November 23rd, 1984, BC given little chance. The game was a high-scoring affair going back and forth with the Hurricanes taking the lead with only 20 seconds remaining.
Falling back, Flutie avoided a few tacklers before throwing a Hail Mary 63 yards into the win to Gerard Phelan for a stunning last second touchdown and BC victory. Despite one of the greatest plays in college football, Flutie never really achieved that greatness in the pros, working for the USFL, bouncing about various NFL teams and Canadian football too but no championships and few winning seasons.
3 Timmy Smith
It’s still one of the more baffling cases of a guy vanishing after a huge outing in NFL history. Drafted in the fifth round of the 1987 draft by the Washington Redskins, Smith had an okay but not spectacular year with the team as they went 11-4 to reach Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos. Amid the play, Smith suddenly exploded with two touchdown runs and 204 yards rushing, still the most by a single player in any Super Bowl.
It was a spectacular performance that helped pave the way for Washington’s dominant 42-10 victory. However, Smith’s career would be cut short by injuries and drug use as he would have only one more touchdown ever and would retire with Dallas just two years after his Super Bowl achievement. It’s still remarkable that a record performance belongs to a guy who never did anything before or after to solidify Smith as a true one-hit wonder.
2 James “Buster” Douglas
It’s easy to forget how dominating a force Mike Tyson was in his prime. With his brutal fistwork and slamming blows, the man was a force of nature in the ring with bouts that often lasted just a minute and it seemed no one could stop him. It was believed by many that Tyson could very well retire undefeated as few seemed able to stand up to him, let alone a massive challenge. When Tyson faced James “Buster” Douglas in early 1990, his victory seemed so assured that Las Vegas betters didn’t even bother putting the bout on any lines.
Instead, in what ranks as one of the greatest upsets in the history of boxing, Douglas knocked out Tyson in the tenth round to win the heavyweight championship. It was a monster shock to the sports world and a blow Tyson never truly recovered from. Douglas was on top of the world, feted as the next big thing but in his very first defense lost the belt to Evander Holyfield in a three-round knockout. His star faded fast but Douglas is still somewhat upbeat as the man who beat the unbeatable and for most of 1990, that victory allowed him to reign well in the public eye.
1 Bobby Thomson
Down 13 and a half games in August of 1951, the New York Giants went on a sensational run that ended up catching up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and tying up the National League pennant. A three-game playoff was held with the teams splitting the two games, the third at the Polo Grounds with Brooklyn carrying a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Despite the Giants having two men on base, a Dodgers victory was so assured that the team was already handing out World Series press credentials. With Bobby Thomson coming up to bat, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen, in the move he would be criticized for the rest of his life over, decided to have Ralph Branca be the reliever, despite the fact that Branca had given up a homer to Thomson in the first game of the series.
Branca went up and pitched, Thomson swinging to hit “the Shot Heard Round the World,” a three-run homer that won the Giants the pennant. The Polo Grounds erupted as did all of New York and millions watching on television, Thomson hailed as an instant hero carried about by his teammates and doing curtain calls before the joyful crowd. While he had a decent career, Thomson never quite reached the same heights of success. But for that one October day, he was on top of the world for most still consider the greatest moment in baseball history.
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